What’s The Difference Between Instant Cold Packs, Gel Packs, and Clay Packs?

July 20, 2018

What’s The Difference Between Instant Cold Packs, Gel Packs, and Clay Packs?

Hot and cold therapy has come a long, long way.

From the frozen peas and hot water bottles of the past, we now have instant cold packs, gel packs, and clay packs to relieve people from pain, stiff muscles, and inflammation.

The question is, which hot and cold device is the best for you?

In this article, we break down the pros and cons of instant cold packs, gel packs and clay packs to help you choose the best product to suit your needs.

Instant Cold Packs

Advantages

  • Does not need to be refrigerated
  • Easy to activate. Just fold and shake the pack to activate its contents
  • Great for first aid and emergency treatment while on the field
  • Lightweight and portable
  • Available in various sizes

Disadvantages

  • Non-reusable. Instant cold packs are good for single use only
  • Can only be used for cold therapy
  • Stays cold for a shorter period of time compared to gel or clay packs

Best Used For:

  • Emergencies while traveling (minor bumps and bruises while camping, backpacking, or while on a road trip)
  • Sports injuries

How To Use

  • Activate the cooling agent by hitting and shaking the instant cold pack. Make sure the components mix thoroughly to achieve best results.
  • Wrap the cold pack in a small towel or cloth before applying to the affected area. Do not apply directly to the skin to avoid ice burns.
  • Do not apply for longer than 15 - 20 minutes.


Instant cold packs are a great addition to every first aid kit and emergency bag. These nifty little packs don’t need a fridge to get cold--- you can store them at room temperature and simply activate its contents when you need them. Once it’s cold, you can then apply the instant cold pack to the affected area to get pain relief and reduce possible swelling, even when you’re outdoors.

But how do instant cold packs work?

Going from room temperature to almost freezing in a matter of seconds sounds like a magic trick, but the truth is it’s really more of a chemical reaction than anything else.



Here’s how it works:

Instant cold packs are actually made up of two bags inside. One bag contains water, while the other holds a chemical like calcium ammonium nitrate. When you shake or hit the pack, the internal bags break, causing the two substances to mix. This leads to an endothermic reaction which causes the pack to turn cold for several minutes.

This chemical reaction makes instant cold packs very useful when you’re outdoors and have no way of getting ice to treat a sprain, bruise or even an insect bite. These packs can stay cold for about 15 - 20 minutes --- that’s enough time for a person to receive emergency treatment for common aches and pains.

The downside to instant cold packs is that they’re not the most versatile products out there. As their name suggests, these packs can only be used for cold therapy, and not the other way around. They’re also single-use packs, so once the chemical reaction is done, you have to dispose of the packs properly. You can’t refreeze or reuse them after that.

How Do You Dispose Of Instant Cold Packs Safely?

Once activated, the instant cold pack can be disposed of safely in your trash. Avoid puncturing the bag--- although the activated contents are considered non-toxic, you still don’t want to clean up that mess.

Overall, instant cold packs are great for emergency situations and first aid. They’re not the best options for long-term relief, but if you need a cold compress fast--- this product is your best bet.

 

Gel Packs


Advantages

  • reusable
  • relatively cheap and widely available
  • can be used for both cold and hot purposes
  • comes in many shapes and sizes depending on the body part

Disadvantages

  • needs to be put in a freezer or microwave to obtain the right temperature

Best Used For:

  • Long-term home treatment of both acute injuries and chronic conditions

How To Use

  • For cold therapy, put the gel pack in your freezer for at least two hours. Make sure they lie flat so that it can mold onto the affected area better.
  • For hot therapy, place the gel pack in the microwave. The heating duration usually depends on the size of the gel pack. Smaller gel packs only take 10 seconds to heat up, while bigger ones take about 40 seconds. Gradually heat the larger packs (10 to 15-second duration, with a few seconds in between) to avoid overheating.
  • Do not apply hot or cold packs directly onto your skin. Use a barrier like a towel or cloth before using the gel packs to avoid possible skin damage caused by extreme temperatures.
  • Apply the gel packs onto the affected area for about 15 - 20 minutes. Do not apply for more than the recommended duration. Allow the skin to return to its normal temperature before reapplying the hot or cold pack. 


It’s safe to say that gel packs have replaced frozen peas and hot water bottles when it comes to hot and cold therapy. These packs are made from a mixture of water and other non-toxic substances that help maintain the pack’s consistency and temperature for a long time.

Gel packs also use heavy-duty, puncture-proof plastic material to prevent leakage caused by extreme temperatures and trauma.

What sets gel packs apart is the fact that they’re very versatile. Unlike instant cold packs, gel packs can be used multiple times for both hot and cold therapy purposes. If you’re suffering from a long-standing condition like arthritis and need to alternate hot and cold therapy on a regular basis, you can do so with just a couple of gel packs.

These handy products also come in various shapes and sizes--- a single gel pack can already cater to multiple body parts. This can save you a lot of money in the long run.



Other products, like ActiveWrap, also use gel packs in their compression wraps to target specific body parts like the knee or shoulder. The compression wrap keeps the gel pack in place without restricting your mobility, allowing you to heal faster.

Since you will need to freeze or heat gel packs to achieve the desired temperature, they’re clearly not the best remedies for emergencies on the field. They are, however, very useful if you’re recovering from surgery or if you need relief from chronic or recurring pain conditions like stiff muscles and joint pain.

Caring For Your Gel Packs

Gel packs are very easy to maintain. When taken care of properly, they can last a long time.
If you’re mainly using them for cold therapy, make sure to lay them flat in your fridge so they remain pliant once you’re ready to use them.

You can simply wash them with water and mild soap after use. Wipe them dry before putting them back in the fridge or medicine cabinet. Do not drop or overheat your gel packs to avoid punctures.

 

Clay Packs

Advantages

  • uses natural ceramic clay and non-toxic oils
  • stays hot or cold for a longer period of time compared to gel packs
  • yields a higher therapeutic effect by staying in place and molding onto the injured body part
  • doesn't freeze solid; it remains pliant even when it’s very cold

Disadvantages

  • takes longer to freeze or heat (usually 4 hours in the freezer and 60- 90 seconds in the microwave)
  • heavier than instant cold packs or gel packs
  • may dry out when overheated or placed in direct heat or sunlight

Best Used For

  • Long-term home treatment of both acute injuries and chronic conditions

How To Use

  • For cold therapy, put the clay pack flat in your freezer for four hours. Although clay packs don’t freeze solid even when they’re placed in the freezer, laying them flat allows the pack to mold onto the affected area more effectively.
  • For hot therapy, place the clay pack in the microwave for about 60 seconds to warm it up. Turn the pack and continue heating for 20-second durations until you achieve the desired temperature. Take care not to overheat the clay pack.
  • Do not apply hot or cold clay packs directly onto your skin. Use a barrier like a towel or customized cloth cover before using the clay packs to avoid possible skin damage caused by extreme temperatures.
  • Apply the clay pack onto the affected area for about 15 - 20 minutes. Do not apply for more than the recommended duration.


People have been using clay for its therapeutic effects for centuries. Traditional medicine practitioners believe that when applied to the skin, medicinal clay can draw out toxins and harmful chemicals from the body.

Today, clay is used as the main component in many hot and cold packs. While gel packs use water and non-toxic substances, clay packs use a mix of ceramic clay and non-toxic oils. These unique components allow clay packs to maintain their temperatures for a longer time, promoting a gradual and prolonged healing effect.

One of the best things about clay packs is that they can mold onto the injured body part extremely well. If you’re using them for cold therapy, clay packs have the ability to stay pliant even when they’re really cold. Since they don’t freeze solid, clay packs can be molded to target hard-to-reach areas and deliver its therapeutic effects while keeping its temperature.

When used for hot therapy, clay packs have the ability to absorb and then release heat for an extended period of time. This allows the heat to penetrate deeper into those stiff muscles and joints, promoting comfort and faster healing.



Perhaps the only downside to clay packs is their weight and bulk. They are relatively heavier than gel packs and instant cold packs. Since they’re denser, they also take a bit more time to freeze or heat compared to gel packs. For comparison, standard clay packs usually take at least 4 hours to freeze, while gel packs only take about half that time. When used for hot therapy, clay packs need to be preheated for 60 seconds in the microwave before turning and heating again in 20-second durations until the right temperature is achieved.

If you’re keen on getting your own clay packs, make sure to get at least two. One clay pack can stay in the freezer for cold therapy so you don’t have to wait for hours for it to freeze. The other clay pack can be stored in room temperature as a backup for when you need a hot pack.

Caring For Your Clay Packs

Taking care of your clay packs is a breeze. After using the clay packs, simply wipe them clean with a damp cloth and mild soap. Wipe them dry, put them in a plastic bag and pop them back in the freezer for future use.

If you’re using your clay packs for hot therapy, take care not to overheat your packs. Placing them in direct heat or sunlight can cause the clay to dry up. Store it in a cool, dry place, away from direct light and heat.

 

When To Use Hot or Cold Therapy

Now that you know the difference between instant cold packs, gel packs and clay packs, it’s time to get the low-down on hot and cold therapy itself. When do you use your ice packs? What types of conditions need a hot compress instead?

Knowing when to use hot and cold therapy is crucial--- if you apply a hot or cold pack to the wrong type of injury, it can potentially worsen the condition and prolong your recovery period instead.

Equip yourself with the right information. Here’s a quick guide to help you use your hot and cold packs properly:

Cold Therapy

Imagine spraining your ankle or taking a bad fall while playing sports. When you get hurt like this, your brain signals your body to flood the affected area with red blood cells and plasma in an attempt to neutralize the threat and bring things back to normal. This is called the inflammatory response. It is part of your body’s natural healing process, but can still be quite painful. You’ll notice that the injured area will look red and bruised. It will also be warm and tender to the touch.

To lessen inflammation, you’ll want to use a cold compress or ice pack. The cold will constrict your blood vessels and curb the flow of blood cells to the area, slowing down the inflammatory process in turn.

That being said, you should use cold therapy...

  • Immediately after an injury or acute trauma like bumps, slips, and sprains
  • If there is inflammation present. Watch out for the five major signs of inflammation. They are redness, pain, warmth, tenderness, and loss of function
  • Immediately after strenuous activities like workouts, ball games, and contact sports to lessen the pain and swelling
  • After a surgical procedure

Hot Therapy

If cold packs cause your blood vessels to constrict, hot packs do the opposite. They dilate your blood vessels so more blood can pass through. This allows your muscles to relax and loosen up.

Hot therapy is best used for aches and pains that have been there for a while, like stiff joints or “knotted” muscles.

You can also use hot therapy...

  • If there is no inflammation or swelling
  • For recurring or chronic conditions like muscle cramps, period cramps, and stiff joints

 

When Can You NOT Use Hot or Cold Therapy

Medical conditions like diabetes and Buerger’s disease can impair the person’s ability to feel sensation, especially on their extremities. In these cases, hot and cold therapy can be risky. Hypertensive patients (people with high blood pressure) may experience adverse effects as well. If you’re suffering from conditions that impair your sensory abilities or if you are hypertensive, please consult with your physician first before applying hot or cold therapy.

 

Final Thoughts

If you’re still using bags of ice, frozen peas or water bottles for your hot and cold therapy needs, you’re clearly missing out. It’s time to get with the program and start your healing journey with modern ice, gel and clay packs.

These products may look simple, but don’t forget: they’re specifically developed by the best physiotherapy experts to promote efficient healing. Ice, gel and clay packs are backed by studies to make them both ergonomic and functional. Some of them are used in conjunction with compression wraps to target specific body parts. Other products, like ProIce, use a patented window-type cryoblanket to ensure that it delivers consistent temperature for faster healing.

Instant ice packs, gel packs and clay packs may have their subtle differences, but one thing is for sure: you need them for hot and cold therapy. Weigh out each product’s pros and cons and see which one would best fit your needs. If you can’t choose just one, no problem! You can always get all three and see how they perform for yourself.

Have you tried using these products? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!




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